(September 24, 2019 / JCPA) From the day French President Emmanuel Macron entered the Presidential Palace in May 2017, he has tried to improve France’s image in the international arena and play a central role in resolving conflicts.
With the withdrawal of U.S. President Donald Trump from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) nuclear deal on May 8, 2018, and the reimposition of sanctions on Iran, Macron saw a golden opportunity to take the lead on a new diplomatic offensive to preserve the deal.
The previous French administration played an essential role in the contacts that led to the signing of the JCPOA in Vienna on July 14, 2015. The position of then-French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius was firmer than that of the United States; he demanded a final agreement that was “robust from all points of view,” including a prohibition on Iran developing ballistic missiles. In the end, however, France fell in line with former U.S. President Barack Obama and signed the terrible nuclear agreement.
Fabius’s successor, Jean-Yves Le Drian, is known for his good relations with the Arab world. As defense minister he signed many treaties with Arab countries on cooperation and the sale of arms and advanced technology. At the same time, he strengthened ties with Saudi Arabia and Iran, as well as with Egypt, Qatar and the Gulf states.
With regard to Iran, France is concerned that Tehran’s isolation in the international arena will harden its position, which could further complicate the geopolitical situation in Syria and Iraq. Macron is also apprehensive that improvement in ties between Saudi Arabia and Israel could lead to a future military confrontation with the Islamic Republic.
In light of this, as well as Trump’s refusal to return to the JCPOA, the French approach has been to find any way possible to circumvent the U.S. sanctions. After many conversations between Macron and European heads of state, a decision was made in Jan. 2019 to create the INTEX system to facilitate transactions with Tehran not based on U.S. currency.
With the move, France, Germany and Italy sought to preserve Iran’s economic welfare, which grew with the signing of the JCPOA, and thus to look after their own financial investments. It should be noted that the INTEX mechanism was first and foremost intended for the supply of food, medicines and humanitarian aid.
At the same time, to satisfy the demands of the United States and even to “pacify” Israel, the French foreign minister transmitted to his Iranian counterpart the European Union’s demand to negotiate on the issue of ballistic missiles. However, since then Iran has accelerated its efforts to upgrade its missile arsenal.
In talks with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and in a meeting between Macron and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly in September 2018, the French president made it clear that he was against Iran’s expansionist ambitions in the Middle East. He was concerned about the continued Iranian military presence in Syria, Iran’s military and financial support for Hezbollah, and Iranian subversion in Yemen, where it gives military aid to the Houthis.
Macron also expressed his opposition to the Iranian regime’s violation of the human rights of women and religious and ethnic minorities. Iranian authorities are currently holding a French researcher of Iranian descent in jail, and Macron has requested her immediate release. However, he has not yet received a response. Fariba Adelkhah was arrested in July 2019 by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard on charges of spying. There is no doubt that her arrest is being used as a bargaining chip in negotiations with France as part of Iran’s struggle to terminate the sanctions.
The G7 Summit in Biarritz, France, at the end of August 2019 gave Macron another opportunity to raise the future of Iran’s nuclear project and the removal of sanctions. The summit at the Biarritz resort town was planned and organized with extra care to maintain a relaxed and welcoming atmosphere in spite of differences of opinion with the United States, and Trump’s “disdain” for Europe.
To succeed in his mission, Macron first prepared French public opinion by giving many briefings and interviews on all media channels. He managed to gain unusual support from all the commentators and experts, and became the only European leader able to detail in diplomatic language, without embellishment, the dangers awaiting the Middle East and the world if the sanctions on Iran continue and if Iran eventually succeeds in building a nuclear weapon.
Prior to the G7 Summit, Macron invited Russian President Vladimir Putin to the Fort Brégançon Palace near Biarritz, where he received agreement on a course of action regarding Iran. Since the crisis with Ukraine and the war in the Crimea, Russia has not been a member of the summit. Macron wanted to normalize and strengthen ties with Putin, which have deteriorated since then, primarily due to accusations of his involvement in presidential elections and his support for extreme-right French politician Marine Le Pen.
It should be noted that when he was finance minister, Macron asked the Russians to support the removal of the sanctions. Already then, and as a former banker, he understood the importance to France of continued trade with Iran. The meeting with Putin immediately bore fruit, and a high-level delegation led by the French foreign and defense ministers held talks in Moscow about strengthening ties between both countries, as well as the future of the START agreements on limiting nuclear weapons.
Macron also thought it was a good idea to mediate between Putin and Ukraine’s new president, Volodymyr Zelensky. Regarding both Iran and the Israeli-Palestinian issue, France believes no agreement will be signed without Putin’s approval.
After receiving a green light from Putin, Macron was drawn into a dramatic media process with the Iranians. At the end of talks in Tehran, which were held with his representative and adviser Emmanuel Bonne, a former French ambassador to Iran and Lebanon, Macron invited Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif to a dialogue in the Elysée Palace in Paris.
Macron then took the next, secret step, which was to invite Zarif to the G7 Summit. All the newspapers and commentators went out of their way to praise the diplomatic initiative; Macron had become a superstar, setting the global agenda.
During a private meeting, Macron tried to persuade Trump that the Iranians were honoring the agreements they had signed, unlike North Korea. He claimed that meetings with the Iranian leader encouraged him to go for a “package deal” that included:
- A meeting between Trump and Rouhani on the sidelines of the 2019 UNGA.
- A return to talks, accompanied by gradual removal of sanctions.
- Intensive and ongoing visits by supervisors from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to ensure that Iran is not breaching the terms of the Vienna agreement.
- Inclusion of ballistic missiles in the new agreement.
- An extension of the expiry date on the agreement and the strengthening of guarantees to prevent a violation of the agreement.
- An outline for the restoration of stability to Syria and the withdrawal of all foreign forces.
- The protection of human rights in Iran and the release of opposition activists and followers from prison.
- The cessation of subversion and terror activities in Europe.
- Freedom of movement for all oil tankers in the Persian Gulf.
- A credit line of $15 billion for Iran. At the initial stage, Iran would be interested in exporting 700,000 barrels of oil per day to ease its severe economic crisis.
To speed up diplomatic processes and prepare for the meeting with Rouhani, a high-level Iranian delegation arrived in Paris that included Iranian Deputy Defense Minister Abbas Aragchi, bankers, financiers and businesspeople.
There is no doubt that President Macron’s primary motivation with regard to Iran is economic, focusing on the preservation of France’s interests. It should be noted that since the imposition of new sanctions following the U.S. withdrawal from the Vienna agreement, the export of French products to Iran has fallen by 42 percent. France is the third-largest exporter to Iran in Europe after Germany and Italy.
At the end of 2018, the value of commerce between the two countries stood at 2.4 billion euros. Apart from investments in the country to establish transportation and electricity infrastructures, France exports raw materials and electronics, agricultural machinery and medicines to Iran. TOTAL Energy and Renault built factories in Iran, employing thousands of locals. However, today both factories are almost idle.
The French president’s diplomatic moves are transparent and also dangerous; if he had his way Iran would receive the removal of the sanctions on a silver platter, as well as billions of euros, even before talks begin. France, along with most of the European countries, is gambling on Rouhani and Zarif, whom they believe to be “moderate,” without considering the tough and uncompromising stand of the leaders of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. This process serves the efforts of the European Union to maintain the nuclear deal with Iran.
While Macron understands that all previous efforts to bypass the sanctions have failed and that is necessary to consider the standpoint of the United States, at the same time Israel needs to launch a broad diplomatic offensive to torpedo this dangerous French initiative.
A current International Atomic Energy Agency report asserts that Iran continues to violate the JCPOA and has increased its stocks of enriched uranium beyond the permitted level. According to the report, Iran has amassed 241.6 kilograms of uranium enriched to 4.5 percent.
Israel’s recent discoveries of clandestine nuclear sites and Iran’s continued subversive operations in Syria, Iraq and especially in Lebanon with the construction of precision missiles for Hezbollah obligate the international community to put the threat Iran poses to the Jewish state ahead of their own commercial interests.
Ambassador Freddy Eytan, a former senior adviser to the Israeli Foreign Ministry who served in Israel’s embassies in Paris and Brussels, was Israel’s first ambassador to the Islamic Republic of Mauritania. He was also the spokesman of the Israeli delegation in the peace process with the Palestinians. Since 2007, he has headed the Israel-Europe Project at the Jerusalem Center, which analyzes Israeli relations with countries in Europe, and seeks to develop ties and avenues of bilateral cooperation.
This is an edited version of an article first published by the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.
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